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Are Latin American Leaders Leaning Leftward?

Many political analysts believe that Catholic Latin America is veering toward radical socialism.

BY ALEJANDRO BERMÚDEZ

LATIN AMERICA CORRESPONDENT

March 18-24, 2007 Issue | Posted 3/13/07 at 10:00 AM

 

LIMA, Peru — Many political analysts and economists believe that Catholic Latin America has taken a dramatic detour toward radical socialism, but that would be an incorrect assumption, say others.

Critics point to the reelection of anti-American Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who shadowed President Bush’s Latin American tour this month — and the return to power of former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and election of Chavez’ friend Rafael Correa in Ecuador.

Pope Benedict XVI will make his first papal visit to the region in May when he visits Brazil. Gone is the heyday of Latin American liberation theology, which he criticized as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But the legacy of that faulty theology lives on.

Although several regional experts acknowledge that Latin America has become more inclined towards some aspects of the socialist agenda, they disagree that that agenda is raging through the region.

“There is no doubt about the disenchantment of many Latin Americans with free-market and free-trade zones, and there is certainly a return to support a greater role of the state,” said Javier Pinto, a Peruvian economic analyst. “And that desire has been capitalized by left-wing politicians in the recent elections.”

For example, Correa was elected in Ecuador by calling the country’s $11 billion foreign debt “illegitimate,” and by promising a greater role of the government in fighting poverty.

Correa’s Jan. 15 inauguration was a “who’s who” of Latin American socialism, an event with a guest list that included Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

A few weeks earlier during the swearing-in ceremony of his new cabinet, Venezuela’s Chavez announced a series of new measures for moving ahead in establishing “a 21st century socialism” in Venezuela.

Among these new measures are the convocation of a new constitutional assembly and the re-nationalization of key industries.

However, political analysts stress the new generation of leaders do not generally share Chavez’ pro-Cuban ideological viewpoint or his anti-American rhetoric.

“Chavez, more than a left-wing leader, is a deranged megalomaniac, whose ego soars proportionally to the oil price,” said Andrés Oppenheimer, the top Latin American analyst for The Miami Herald.

The New Leaders

Bolivia’s Evo Morales has announced openly anti-free market policies and established close ties with Chavez.

But according to Pinto, “it would be a mistake” to think that Morales is evidence of a pronounced socialist lurch in Latin America.

“First, the U.S. commands significant support in countries like Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Argentina,” Pinto said. “Second, the new left-wing leaders are all animals of very different stripes.”

In Ecuador, Catholic leaders who spoke to the Register on condition of anonymity said they feel “fairly comfortable” with their new president, Correa.

“In his youth, he was very close to Catholic priests heavily influenced by the theology of liberation and he thought of becoming a priest himself,” one of the sources explained.

“He is, indeed, a man of left-wing tendencies, but in all of the moral and ethical issues from abortion to contraception, his heart is in the right place.”

And according to Sonia María Crespo, editor of the influential Ecuadorean magazine Vive, the 43-year-old Correa won power in Ecuador not as a socialist but rather “as a charismatic outsider who pledged to lead a ‘citizens’ revolution’ against a political establishment widely seen as resistant to reform.”

In Nicaragua, the election of Daniel Ortega, the former anti-American leader of the communist-oriented Sandinista revolution of the 1980s, should spark “no concerns whatsoever,” said Luis Humberto Guzmán, ex-president of the Nicaraguan National Assembly and a political rival.

“The new Ortega has very little if anything to do with the young revolutionary. His inauguration speech, as well as his first steps [in government], are eloquently moderate: no confrontation with private property, and a clear desire to tackle poverty and fight corruption,” Guzmán said.

During the presidential campaign, Ortega’s party was the only one that published a statement supporting the elimination of all types of legal abortions.

Local and regional feminists are especially fearful of Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, a former revolutionary leader who recently “reverted” to Catholicism and has become a devout mother and a staunch pro-life figure.

In Uruguay, President Tabaré Vásquez has a similar stance to Ortega’s current position in the political spectrum.

“He is a strong pro-life left-wing leader,” Pinto said about Vásquez. “I would say that, by U.S. standards, he would be a Tammany Hall type of Democrat: pro-life, pro-labor union and in favor of a significant involvement of the government in social issues.”

Alejandro Bermúdez

is based in Lima, Peru.